Lou Reed: Cranky Almost to the End

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Photo: Hannelore Foerster/2012 Getty Images

There is no use being shy about this: Lou Reed, the rock-and-roll legend who died yesterday at the age of 71, could be a dick. Instances of dickishness are well documented. I experienced one first-hand. I've heard many similar stories from friends and acquaintances — the time, for instance, he was buying a couple of vintage bandanas at RRL on Bleecker Street and the clerk said, “I’m a big fan,” and Lou Reed said, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Fuck off.” He said something pretty similar to a New York interviewer.

Lou Reed was also godlike enough that when you were hit by a drop of his acid rain, you wore the scar with pride. It was like the cultural equivalent of an Erdös number.

I’ll always remember the first time I met him. It was 2007 and I was working at Gawker as an after-hours reporter. I was reporting live from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Gala. Oddly, the party took place in a skyscraper overlooking ground zero, then still a pit in the ground.  Lou Reed was there, wearing a sweatshirt hoodie, along with his wife, Laurie Anderson. Almost everyone else in the room was a suited-up bigwig donor. Eventually I screwed up the courage to approach him. I was going to make small talk, hopefully glean a good quote, and then post it on the website in the morning.

I chose a moment to approach when he was shuffling around with Laurie, unengaged in small talk. “Hello,” I said, my hand already extended, “my name is Joshua Dav...” But Lou Reed immediately set upon me a gaze so withering, as if all of his six decades at the apex of cool had been distilled into a single moment of disdain, and just said, “Nope.” Laurie Anderson looked at me slightly apologetically as they walked away. The next morning I wrote a post entitled “You Know What? Lou Reed Is a Jerk.”

And that would have been my Lou Reed story. But a week before he died, in what I’m pretty sure was his final interview, I called him up to talk about tai chi. Reed has been practicing for over 25 years, many of those years with Master Ren Guangyi, the twentieth-generation master of Chen Style. He was doing the interview, I’m sure, as a favor to Master Ren. When we spoke, Reed was not only polite, in the traditional sense of not being a dick, but effusive in his praise of Master Ren and generous in sharing his knowledge and experience of tai chi.

Reed had discovered taijiquan in Berlin over 25 years ago and only later had started studying with Ren. “Master Ren is a physical genius,” Reed told me. “He changed the way I move.” Reed and I chatted for maybe twenty minutes. I was standing in the lobby of my office building, watching people stream out. I wanted to yell at them, “I’m talking to Lou Reed!” as if they could touch the quicksilver second hand.

He wouldn’t stop talking about Master Ren or how much tai chi had done for him. “The Chinese measure the strength of someone by their legs. I have strong tai chi legs now,” he said. We talked about the long forms and short forms of Chen-style practice, about the relative merits of it as a martial art (“tremendously effective,” Reed said), and Master Ren's sublime gifts as an instructor. It was both like I was talking to Lou Reed (the growl, the pause before responding, and because it was, in fact, Lou Reed), and I wasn't (who has a conversation with Lou Reed that’s not about Lou Reed?).

After I hung up with Lou Reed — but before I called my mother because I was so excited to have talked to Lou Reed — I thought back to that night in 2007.  Maybe it wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to me, but that he didn’t want to talk about Lou Reed. And in his final interview — if indeed it was — Lou Reed didn’t talk about Lou Reed, not his music, not his art. He talked about his friend, and he wasn’t a dick at all.